Freedom's Frontier: Honoring the past, looking to the future at Point Alpha
April 22, 2014
WIESBADEN, Germany - Twenty-four years ago in March 1990, Soldiers from the 11th Armored Cavalry Regiment performed their last patrol along the former East-West German border.
This lonely outpost in the Fulda Gap, an area between the Hessen-Thuringian border an hour and a half northeast of Wiesbaden, was once considered the hottest point of tensions between the East and West during the Cold War. Day and night, Soldiers on both sides watched and listened for any sign of movement. It would have been ground zero for World War III had push come to shove.
Now, timelier than ever given Russia's provocations and the resurgence of East-West tensions, "Freedom's Frontier" serves as a reminder of what could have been and a sanctuary for fostering German-American friendship. More than 40 Wiesbaden High School Junior Reserve Officer Training Corps cadets volunteered the start of their spring breaks to perform the final patrol ceremony there, toured the site with "contemporary witnesses" and participated in a panel discussion with German high school students.
The cadets conducted a retreat ceremony, retiring the flag against the backdrop of the watchtower and the Iron Curtain that many East Germans lost their lives trying to cross. Volker Bausch, director of the Point Alpha Foundation, U.S. Army Europe Command Sgt. Maj. David Davenport and Jeffrey Hill, public affairs officer at the U.S. Consulate General in Frankfurt, gave remarks.
Davenport, donning the cavalry hat in honor of the 11th ACR, described their important and daunting mission of holding off more than 80,000 Soviet 8th Guard Army troops in order to give the forces behind them time to react if the Soviets invaded.
"We stand here at Point Alpha in a free Germany because of young people like you," he remarked. "You can walk anywhere you want enjoying the freedoms those in the East could not. Our NATO alliance stood together as it will again if called upon."
"The thrill of being here as an American I can't state enough," Hill said. "As Command Sgt. Maj. Davenport stated, recent events show us that anything can happen in Europe, and history repeats itself. We don't know what's going to happen next and we must remain eternally vigilant."
Contemporary witnesses such as Berthold Jost, former mayor of the nearby town of Rasdorf, shared their stories. Guides gave students a tour of the sites, including the watchtower and border, pointing out features such as the guard dogs that would sense movement and the dirt patch along the fence line, groomed every day so that footprints would easily be seen. Sensors detected movement and anyone caught trying to escape would be shot.
"It's quite interesting because we learned it in school and now we are here," said German student Martin Strassenberg. "History is alive."
"Their continued desperate attempts to risk everything for a chance at freedom is the cornerstone of this historical location," remarked retired Col. David Hensley, commander of the JROTC unit. "The Americans and our West German Allies understood this better than anyone else during the Cold War era."
Steve Steininger was a company commander within the 11th ACR in Bad Hersfeld and had a platoon stationed on the observation point at the time. He recalled having to check checkpoints every 24 hours and report any time they accidentally crossed over the border, which was easy to do in the thick forest.
"It was as close to war as you could have gotten during the Cold War," he reflected. "And there were very high expectations -- absolute perfection or failure."
After walking the grounds and visiting the museum, students ate lunch together and took part in a panel discussion on the topic, "How have German-American relations changed since the Cold War?"
"We have different systems of government and schooling that dictate most of our lives," asked an American student. "Does it bother you that we're here or are you glad that we are friends?"
Other questions centered on the elephants in the room -- NSA wiretapping and Russia's annexation of Crimea. Students relished the chance to engage with each other and learn their shared history.
"It amazed me how passionate the speakers where, and I realized how recent the Cold War really was," said Emilie Hollingsworth, a freshman cadet. "It is fascinating to think that Point Alpha was still full of soldiers readied for battle when my parents were finishing high school; that such a quiet valley and an innocent town were considered the front line of what could be the world's biggest war yet caught me pretty off guard."
Bausch remarked that he found the conversation between students inspiring. As a youth in post-war Germany, he remembers fondly the days when Germans and Americans met physically, not just on Facebook.
"We met American Soldiers and had touch with the American way of life. We don't have this contact so much anymore, which is a pity," he said. "[But] you could feel the common base of our German-American relations which is far older than 40 years. Even if there is disagreement it doesn't change the foundation."
Next year's ceremony marking the 25th anniversary of the last patrol will encourage more face-to-face interaction with German and American students spending the night at Point Alpha to experience it firsthand. Students will break up into small groups to encourage closer communication.
For more information on Point Alpha , visit www.pointalpha.com.